Something terrible is always happening around the world. Many of us living in peaceful places can’t help but wonder at our good fortune while we seek to understand what has gone so wrong elsewhere.
Two mornings a week on my ninth floor terrace, my physical therapist and I make a spectacle of ourselves for all the surrounding neighbors. Michele ties a constricting band just below my knees and has me kick out each leg ten times to the side and then ten times back. She then has me crouch up and down ten times so that my knees are bent forward, and then stand and relax ten times on my toes. We’ll make jokes about her tying me up and what it says about her kinkiness, or mine for submitting, in voices that undoubtedly carry to my neighbors. Later she arranges a pile of bricks and slabs of wood that I must step onto and off in a variety of mind-numbing ways. These muscle-enhancing exercises continue through an hour and more.
I like to work at my writing in the morning, so these Monday and Thursday sessions disrupt my routine. In fact, for the year and three months that Michele and I have been working together, my productivity has noticeably declined. But the alternative? Going deeper into old age with even less flexible and weaker muscles and joints. Such is the consequence of a degenerative disease of the connective tissue. But there’s no point bemoaning my fate. If anything, my condition allows me to witness the best in my fellow humans, starting with Michele’s kindness and determination.
During our sessions, my mind might drift eastward to the far end of Long Island, on to the Atlantic, and beyond. Thousands of miles over there lie Ukraine, Israel and Gaza. The nearest I’ve been to any of those places is Italy’s northwest coast. Even so, I’m conscious how history has had its way with them. While I’m groaning at Michele’s latest exercise, someone there is being bombed or shot at. Another is being tortured and caused insanity-inducing pain.
I live on land once populated by peoples called the Canarsee and Marechkawieck. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch, and then the British, took over their land, now called Brooklyn. Our ancestors bartered, bamboozled, stole, and then ordered our military to guard what we acquired. The Brooklyn of that pastoral and wooded landscape is long gone. So is its population. The Canarsee and Marechkawieck got pushed farther and farther away until they eventually settled more than a thousand miles distant on a reservation in Oklahoma. They could never have foreseen today’s skyscrapers, residential concentrations and highways in what has become the second most densely populated county in the United States. Even if all of today’s concrete, steel and brickwork were blown up and somehow made to disappear, the land is forever changed.
Although Ukrainians are a distinct ethnic group, they gained independence only in 1991, well within living memory for both Ukrainians and the Russians who second-guess themselves for having relinquished the territory. Ukrainians carry justifiable resentments. As just one example, the elderly can tell gruesome stories about the 1932-1933 famine engineered by Stalin for the benefit of Mother Russia at the expense of millions of Ukrainian lives. No wonder 90% of Ukrainians voted for independence in the 1991 referendum. But 1991 was only thirty-two years ago. By 2014, Russia started clawing back territory, and on February 24, 2022, it launched a full-scale invasion. Meeting resistance, for twenty-one months Russia has bombed and shelled the very Ukrainians they proclaim as brothers and sisters.
Israel’s independence arrived much earlier, in 1948, three-quarters of a century ago. In that time, Israel has performed a seeming miracle. Pure desert was irrigated, modern buildings erected in the midst of ancient edifices, transportation networks established, universities started, and enterprising companies cultivated that today sell valuable products and services around the world. The land has been transformed into a modern, thriving economy.
The difficulty is that this land used to belong to Palestinian Arabs. Zionist Jews started settling in numbers there in the early twentieth century, and by 1917, the date of Britain’s Balfour Declaration, there was some external support for conversion of Palestine to the Jewish homeland. In the years following World War I, external support wavered, but then Hitler and his Nazis made a Jewish homeland a necessity. In 1947 the United Nations adopted a resolution dividing the Palestine protectorate in two, part for Jews and the other part for Palestinians.
To my mind, the question at that time should have been less whether to support an independent Jewish homeland than where to locate it. As the country that nearly succeeded in its genocide plan, Germany deserved to have land carved out of its territory for a Jewish state. But Palestine was the UN’s choice. Three reasons, though not necessarily justifications, come to mind. First, there was the pre-World War II Jewish migration to Palestine. Second, influential Zionists insisted that the homeland be situated in the region with all those biblical placenames. No matter that Arabs might have had their own names and associations with these places or that Muslims had their own holy and historical sites there. Third, positioning a Jewish state inside the very country that launched the Holocaust could have been too close for comfort. Thus European guilt for Jewish suffering was assuaged by imposing the new state on Palestinians who had nothing to do with Treblinka or Auschwitz.
I firmly believe Jews must have a homeland, even if, as today, millions of Jews live elsewhere. Contemplating the entire history of anti-Semitism, it is unacceptable that Jews might again have no homeland where centuries of forced migrations can reach journey’s end. On the other hand, Palestinians didn’t deserve to have this new state imposed on their centuries-owned land.
A year after the UN resolution, Israel declared independence. Immediately, the new state had to fend off invading armies from three Arab neighbors. With their victory, though they would face other threats in the decades to come, the nation was established. As Americans did to Brooklyn’s original settlers, Israelis forced Palestinians who had lived in villages within the territory to flee or, in some cases, forfeit their lives.
“The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” That’s the infamous statement questionably attributed to Stalin. In the same vein, it might be said that a bank robber or a cryptic currency fraudster is guilty of larceny, but a country or a people annexing another’s land is a historical event.
When we talk about history, we often do so in terms of ethical considerations, but whenever we’re in a position to look back, history feels more like a force of nature. I don’t mean that events are inevitable. If we take away nothing else from the lessons of World War II, it is that individual leaders (in that case FDR, Churchill, Stalin, Hitler) make a difference. However, at certain crucial moments in every country’s existence, change is brought about by force.
Decades or centuries later, we might weigh how to correct or compensate for harm caused, but it cannot be undone. I’m probably living on what used to be a path from a canoe site on the estuary that separates Brooklyn from Manhattan. Historical justice says I have no right to be here, any more than Europeans and their American descendants had the right to take it over for future residents like me. Paved-over Brooklyn is here to stay, as, legally, am I.
If I acknowledge that, with backing from the United States and other nations, Israel took Palestinian land by force, what do I do with that recognition when it comes to judging competing Jewish and Palestinian claims? Israel is firmly established. Only complete destruction could undo it.
Furthermore, while Israel’s foundation might have been ethically compromised, Palestinian leaders have been deeply flawed. Hamas’s use of its ally-donated wealth for military spending instead of much needed infrastructure and other civic requirements is unconscionable. Between Hamas’s militarism in Gaza and corruption on the West Bank, Palestinian leaders have consistently acted against their own people’s interests. Today, Hamas’s use of civilians and hospitals to shield its fighters is supremely hypocritical.
Right now, after Hamas’s massacre on October 7 and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s savage response, both sides have entirely new reasons to hate each other.
With Ukraine, the ethics are simple. They are fighting that rare thing, a good war. “Good,” that is, so long as you ignore the deaths, grievous wounds and physical destruction that accompany war.
But with Israel and Hamas, ethical questions are so fraught that there’s little point in pursuing them. I can rail against non-elected Palestinian terrorist leadership and Israel’s people for voting in a right-wing extremist who needs even further right-wing extremists to prop up his government, but where does that get anyone?
Here on my terrace, high above street level, it’s easy to analyze the Gaza calamity with detachment. I imagine that if I were an Israeli, I’d find it nearly impossible not to hate Palestinians for what Hamas did on October 7. As a Gazan, my neighborhood repeatedly subjected to explosions, I would be a rare resident who didn’t hate Israelis. It’s the nature of war. You can’t kill without being despised.
In pressing the war in Ukraine, Russia is clearly in the wrong. Only a would-be autocrat like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin’s suppliant, would argue otherwise. But with the Gazan crisis, we cannot call one side morally superior. It’s a question of having something broken and persisting in finding a fix. I admire the diplomats who keep bashing their heads against the wall of implacable hatreds and self-interests in their efforts to achieve peace for both Israelis and Palestinians.
What is the point of the annexation of a territory, Ukraine, if it means the deaths, maiming and homelessness of millions? What is the point of Jewish rejection of Palestinian rights if it leads to never-ending hostilities? What is the point of advocating that your hosts, Israel, be driven from the Jordan to the Mediterranean if it would also expose your own people to yet more hunger, thirst, destroyed homes and hospitals without anesthetic?
This is insane. The grievances of the past aren’t expunged by creating new grievances in the present.